The 25-year-old made seven birdies in a 65 that was free of any dropped shots, equaling Michiel Bothma's course record and taking a one-shot lead over five players. Those snapping at his heels were Chris Williams, Don Gammon, Hennie Otto, Ian Hutchings and Wallie Coetsee, who was 7-under through 16 holes but unfortunately made a bogey five on the penultimate hole of his round, the eighth.
One of the most tightly bunched leaderboards the Sunshine Tour has seen appeared to point to an intriguing tussle for this coveted title, which is on offer again after a lack of sponsorship saw the event left off the calendar last year. There were 36 players within four shots of the lead.
Van den Berg had seen his confidence take a dive after struggling in the last two rounds of the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Houghton and then comfortably missing the cut in the Mercedes Benz South African Open at the East London Golf Club, the course on which he cut his golfing teeth, the following week. He also missed the cut by three shots at the Dimension-Data Pro-Am last weekend, but that was ironically where he started to turn his game around.
The 25-year-old played the last nine holes before the cut was made in six-under-par 30, which wasn't enough to see him into the last two rounds, but did help ensure that he and amateur partner Graeme Morey would make the final 36 holes of the Pro-Am competition.
In those two rounds, Van den Berg turned in the kind of golf he had shown throughout a stellar amateur career he was capable of, shooting 65 and 68 as he and Morey won the Pro-Am. 'It's a little bit different (to a medal round), because it's betterball medal and sometimes you pick up when you've got a three-foot putt, but the first day I made eight birdies and an eagle and the second I made six birdies.'
Van den Berg said he had felt good during practice at Woodhill and it showed when the event proper started on Thursday as he played his first nine, from the 10th hole, in five-under-par 31. 'At that stage, I was still trailing (one of my playing partners) Alan McLean by a shot, so it was nice, because we were pushing each other.'
But while McLean went on to finish his round with a disappointing second nine of 39, Van den Berg went five better, kicking off with a rare birdie at the par-four first, which proved the most difficult hole on the course. It was an adventurous three, because his drive found a fairway bunker, landing up near the face of the trap. To make matters worse, there were some overhanging trees complicating his escape attempt. 'I played a risky shot, because I had to get over the face of the bunker but stay below the trees. I punched a low 6-iron, which skimmed the top of the bunker. That took some of the momentum off the ball, it finished 25 feet away and I holed it,' he explained.
Earlier, playing partners Williams and Gammon had been the first to reach the clubhouse in 66.
Williams, who won the event in 1985 when it was still being played at the Wanderers, and Gammon had contrasting rounds. Williams had seven birdies and an eagle to go with a bogey and a double-bogey in a fairly adventurous trip around the layout, while the lanky Gammon was steadiness personified, as he made six birdies and 12 pars.
'At this stage, the course doesn't really have any defense,' Williams said, referring to the fact that the trees were not mature on the two-year-old course. He added that the rough could be difficult to get out of , but said that anyone hitting it well off the tee would give himself some good scoring opportunities.
'The greens are the best we've played on since (the Alfred Dunhill Championship at) Houghton,' said Gammon, who added he felt the event could become 'a bit of a putting tournament. On the par-fives, you need to set yourself up with a good tee shot, but they're all reachable in two,' he said.